The following is excerpted from An Ocean Without a Shore; Copyright © 2020 By Scott Spencer. Reprinted here with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Mornings Were Difficult
My name is Christopher Woods, but just about everyone calls me Kip. Soon, I’m going to be finding out what the judge has decided to “give me,” though it’s really what will be taken away, such as the right to sleep in my own bed, retire and rise on my own schedule, go to the movies, take walks, drink wine, and just about every other of life’s pleasures, heretofore taken for granted. It would have been less stressful if sentencing had come immediately on the heels of the verdict, but it might be a good sign that it wasn’t. Despite the encouraging words of counsel, I knew from the start that a not guilty verdict was a pipe dream, and, while the lawyers continue to be insistently, almost insanely optimistic, it’s quite likely there’s a lot more than a slap on the wrist in store for me.
I recently read a report written by an Israeli novelist about his six months in a coma following a head injury in the Six Days War, a dreamy, often phantasmagoric record of the visions he had while hovering between life and death. I am certainly not comatose, and instead of visions I am beset with piercing and exact memories, but I do feel as if I am hovering between two distinct states of being— my life in New York City and my impending incarceration. It must be said, however, that in the ways it matters most, I’ve been something of a prisoner my entire life.
But being a prisoner in a cell of your own design and acting as your own warden and parole board is at a considerable remove from a real penitentiary, and as I await my sentence I have decided my life took its first turn toward the present disaster on March 12, 1997. I had been out late the night before with a woman named Laurie Kaplan, whose father was a client at Adler Associates, the small investment firm where I worked. Laurie was an actress, currently in a Sam Shepard play, though in real life she was sunny, endlessly optimistic. She was my date for an AIDS benefit held at the St. Regis hotel, a dinner followed by an art auction. I spent $22,500 on a small Kiki Smith sculpture, after which the entire ballroom applauded, a sure sign I’d spent too much. I didn’t mind; it was a nice piece and a good cause—I wasn’t making huge amounts of money, but I gave regularly to that particular AIDS organization, tithing myself in accordance to the precepts of the only church to which I belonged, the Church of Not Acting Like a Selfish Jerk. I got Laurie home to her sublet on Ludlow Street about midnight and was back in my place on Charles shortly after that, read for a while, and was asleep by one thirty.
Only to be awakened four and a half hours later by a phone call. Mornings were difficult for me, increasingly so as I aged. Running out of time and all that. The rising sun a blow to the heart. Another night has passed, with kisses unkissed, confidences unspoken and left to wane, wilt, wither, and die. You do your best to perk yourself up. You remind yourself that things could be a great deal worse. You are living well, you enjoy your own company, still holding at your college weight, season tickets to the Met, so many consolations. But sadness can be sneaky, and sometimes upon waking you feel a certain degree of devastation. Wallflower’s lament, unrequited love, etcetera etcetera. You get used to it. It’s like living through a war. Or waking up every morning horribly overweight, which I’m not, or waking up homely, which I am, sort of. However, on the morning this story begins, I didn’t have time for my usual longing, and my rituals of unrequited love began to change, as if the Twelve Stations of the Cross had been suddenly supplemented with a thirteenth.
I should mention that a phone ringing in the dark did not come as a total shock to me. I was a good and grateful employee of Adler Associates, and part of what you agree to when you are overpaid by an investment firm is your boundless availability. It was wearing me out, the lack of proper rest. I was not alone in this. We were all of us old before our time. Not worn- out like lumberjacks or ironworkers. Our aging was subtler, the kind that goes with doing work that is essentially meaningless. Usually, upon waking and tending to my bodily needs, I gazed at myself curiously in the mirror over the sink, like a hypochondriac taking his own temperature or checking his blood pressure, feeling his pulse, listening to his heartbeat. I wondered if, as Orwell had warned, I had acquired the face I deserved.
My father was blessed with good looks, but I favor my grandfather—my eyes are too close together, and nothing about me is in quite the right proportion. No one has ever directly told me I was ugly, but I personally would never be attracted to someone who looks like me. Okay, we won’t call it ugliness. Lack of beauty. And it has had an effect, though I’ll never know how much of an effect, never know what my life would have been as a handsome man. I did the usual things to improve my appearance once I started making money. I ate well and kept thin. Exercised. What I couldn’t do was sleep eight hours a night, and I looked older than my years.
I picked up the phone. “Kip Woods here,” I said, as if I were on my third espresso, tracking the London Stock Exchange on my laptop.
“I figured you’d be awake,” Thaddeus said.
I checked my watch: 6:13 in New York, 11:13 London, 19:13 in Singapore.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“No. No. I’m half out of my mind. I’m sorry. I know it’s early.”
“It’s fine. What’s going on?”
“It’s this house. I’m going to lose it.” His voice, usually so smooth, aged in the cask of his own nature, was this morning strident, harsh. “It’s what’s holding us together up here. I can’t cover the taxes and the place needs a ton of work. Roof, chimneys, fireplaces, grounds, you name it. This house is goddamned historic and when I bought it I assumed a responsibility. I was going to be the one to keep it up, not screw it up.”
I have known Thaddeus Kaufman since college in Michigan. I was the editor of a fairly nutty lit magazine called My Heart Belongs to Dada, which the University of Michigan’s English Department blindly and benevolently funded, and Thaddeus had submitted a couple of conventional short stories to me, stories that had no place in my magazine, which existed primarily to celebrate experimental writing. I was far more drawn to Thaddeus than to his stories and I took and published what-ever he gave me. He was tall, graceful, and casually seductive.
The University of Michigan is vast and most of the people you go to school with you never really get to know, but even there in overpopulated Ann Arbor, Thaddeus managed to give hundreds of people the impression that he held them in the very highest regard. Whether he did or didn’t actually feel that way remains a mystery to me, but one thing I am sure of is that Thaddeus courted approval and affection as if he were amassing it for some impending future of solitary confinement. You’d see him on campus with his arm around some woman, or draped over the shoulder of a male friend. With his floppy long hair and sly smile, you didn’t know what to make of him. He greeted people with kisses on the left cheek and the right, like some French general or a socialite. At any rate, I took his lousy stories and we’ve been friends ever since, though the friendship has never been played out on a level field. It would have been ridiculous of me to even dream he could ever give me as much thought as I give to him.
“Sell the house,” I said. “It’s just an asset. Dump it. Move to the city.” I was more than hasty. I was unkind. He didn’t really like the city, and his wife basically detested it. Add in children, dogs and cats, and the half million wild birds Thaddeus fed throughout the year. Some of the birds seemed to recognize him, landed on his shoulders, ate out of his hand. He thought they came to the windows and glared at him if the feeders were running low. Who doesn’t want to feel like St. Francis from time to time? That house had become the center of his life, and as his career faltered (to say the least) and his hold upon the house became more and more tenuous, his attachment to it became more intense, just as a lover will crank up the heat of his own ardor if he senses his partner’s passion beginning to cool.
The house was in Windsor County, about one hundred miles north of the city. Thaddeus and Grace had owned it since he’d sold a screenplay for a great deal of money back in 1980, when his ambition to write stories and novels was on life support, and he tried his hand on a movie script, a thriller about students in a made-up Middle Eastern country who take over the U.S. embassy. As luck would have it, by the time Thaddeus’s screenplay went out, Iranian students had occupied our embassy in Tehran, and four studios competed for the rights to Hostages. The occupation of the embassy went on for 444 days, but the auction of Thaddeus’s screenplay was concluded in a matter of hours.
That house! Houses like that are like dope habits—they only get more and more expensive. Thaddeus’s and Grace’s names were on the deed, but you’d have to say that the tables had turned and now the house owned them. I don’t think Grace cared as much as he did; she had different priorities, different secrets. I warned him from the beginning not to buy that place— for reasons that were both selfish and sensible. I didn’t want him to move out of the city, but I also believed that the house was a poor investment—150 years old, in lurching disrepair, fourteen rooms, a few inhabited by creatures ranging from the meekest mice to masked, marauding raccoons, plus seventy acres, where the mice and the raccoons summered, along with deer, coyotes, wily red foxes, and the occasional bobcat. The house had a name: Orkney. Out of Walter Scott. “Writers don’t live in houses that have names,” I warned him, but my tone was probably too casual, too jokey. And there was no changing his mind, no magic words, no stunning insight that would bring him to his senses. He was determined.
The New York City he and Grace had come to know was a city up for grabs, teetering on bankruptcy. But it was also a hell of a lot of fun for those willing to take risks. Which they were not. Whatever seductiveness and open-door policy Thaddeus had pursued in Ann Arbor was nowhere to be seen in New York. Tiny apartment, no view, no light, not even a color TV. He and Grace spent their lives in isolation. They could just as well have been living in a cabin in the woods, except they rode the subway to work every morning. It was love at its worst, in many ways. The city pulsated around them but their eyes were locked on each other. Oh, and what a little Crock-Pot of frustrated ambitions they kept at a steady simmer. No one liked his writing and no one liked her painting. Did I forget to mention Grace thought of herself as a painter? Well, I wasn’t the only one who failed to take that into account. Anyhow, there they were in their union of failure and resentment and suddenly Thaddeus had his weird success. I wondered if they moved out of the city so they could ignore the fact that he was on the rise and she was going nowhere.
When I learned that the name Orkney came from The Pirate, an all but forgotten novel by Walter Scott—oh, excuse me, Sir Walter Scott—I tried to use the ridiculousness of that to dissuade Thaddeus, but the Sir Walter Scott–ness of the old place was hardly a drawback for him. It was a plus. Could have been early imprinting. His parents owned a bookshop in Chicago, where a complete set of the Scott novels was perpetually for sale, somehow symbolizing culture and the finer things in life, with leather covers, marbleized endpapers, and gold leaf on the spines’ raised bands.
Orkney’s version of leather bindings and raised gold bands was Tudor roses and fleur-de-lis, a cavalcade of sconces, a minstrel’s gallery, and lancet windows, many with stained glass. Three staircases, one to the north bedrooms, one to the south, and the third to yet another staircase, this to the third floor, a mean little warren of cramped rooms, meant for domestic staff. Thaddeus, whose idea of happiness had once been to have a story accepted by The New Yorker, now sought joy in a house full of people he could feed and entertain. I realized that his avoidance of social life in Manhattan had come from his feelings of failure. But now, he could give more because he had more and he liked that more to be seen. A little tacky, perhaps, but as suspect motives go, quite easy to forgive.
At Orkney, he could be a kind of upstate Gatsby without the terrible longing, a contented Gatsby who actually has married his Daisy. But there was something else— a vision of a new kind of life that Orkney would give them, the land, the fresh air, the Hudson River. They would have a spiritual life, some-thing deep and lasting. Nature would imbue their lives not only with beauty but with something deep and renewing, as if their souls could thrive on photosynthesis. He’d already abandoned literature—or perhaps he thought he was just putting it aside for the time being, while the money was coming in—and he thought: If I can’t write like Tolstoy, who’s to say I can’t take a stab at living like him? What an idea! Thaddeus would be like Levin on his many acres—but a new, hipper Levin, one with the exuberant appetites of Vronsky. How did he ever think that would work out?
Orkney didn’t have serfs, but the house had come with a caretaker, who had been living for fifty years in a yellow clap-board house on the property, hidden behind a swell in the land and thirty oak trees. The caretaker’s name was Phillip Stratton, but everybody called him Hat. That caretaker was Thaddeus’s undoing. When Stratton was injured preparing the grounds for one of Thaddeus’s parties by stringing up lights high in a tree, Thaddeus, compassionately, egomaniacally, sawed off a piece of his property and gave it to the old guy.
The gesture had its ludicrous side, but if you loved Thaddeus this would only make you love him more. Wanting to be liked can bring out the best in you. No? Now the caretaker was buried in a nearby cemetery, and Jennings Stratton, Hat Stratton’s son, lived in the yellow house with a wife and two children. Even if I were to convince Thaddeus that the best— the only!— thing for him to do was unload Orkney, it would not be as easy as it ought to have been. He had complicated it in a moment of stricken largesse, and now another family was living in the center of the property, sharing the driveway, having visitors of their own, and sometimes enormous parties that rumbled on for forty-eight hours, with tents pitched and bonfires lit, horseshoe tosses, pig roasts, sing-alongs, and dancing.
Grace often attended the caretaker’s parties, but Thaddeus never did. He’d stay at his desk, tucked into one of Orkney’s seldom used north-facing rooms, as far from the sounds of the festivities as he could get, working furiously on screenplays that suddenly no one wanted to pay for, trying his best not to think about Hemingway’s line about how people go broke, gradually and then suddenly.
Scott Spencer is the author of 12 novels, two of which were finalists for the National Book Award, including, most recently An Ocean Without a Shore, as well as Endless Love, Waking the Dead, A Ship Made of Paper, and Willing. He has taught at Columbia University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Williams College, the University of Virginia, and at Eastern Correctional Facility as part of the Bard Prison Initiative. He lives in upstate New York.
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